Out of the Cave – The Writing Community

For many years now, I have been a solitary writer. Recently, a more focused desire to get published has brought me out of my literary cave in search of other creative writer types, not only with which to network but also with which to compare notes, collaborate, get feedback. For a long time, I hadn’t realized I needed this interaction. I was content to hammer out my texts in the bowels and darkness of my cave, torch light flickering and throwing up the shadows of my fancy along the rough-hewn walls.

Last night, I sought out the fellowship of a writer’s group in Plano. They are a relaxed, diverse group of writers all in various places along their writer journeys. One woman read her short, breathy poems a few poignant images, another read fan fiction, and one older man read a powerful modern fable.

As for myself, I read a few poems, some old and some new. Afterward, we stood around, doling out compliments and discussing our writing.  And I came away utterly refreshed and invigorated. It hadn’t mattered that the writing I read went uncritiqued. I had been a part of something connective, something important.

That night, before I went to bed, a story began in my head. But as I lay in bed, seeking the solace of sleep, the story wrote itself in my head, insisting, insisting. For the next five hours, I tossed in my bed, as this story refused to leave me alone. Specific prose played over and over in my thoughts. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, I got out of bed, realizing if I didn’t write it down, it wouldn’t leave me alone. And so I did.

Being a writer is not always by choice, but it is often an immensely satisfying calling. And sharing that experience with others, when you’ve spent so many years in the cave, is nothing short of revitalizing.

Science fiction & adventure! Chapter books on their way.

While I continue to write adult science fiction and shop this work to agents, over the last year I have been creating chapter books for my kids. And they’ve loved them. Each time, they can’t wait for the next installment. With a few of these “kid-approved” successes under my belt, I thought why not share them? As the publishing market continues to evolve, I’ve been wanting to try my hand at self-publishing for a while.

My first book to be released is a science-fiction adventure series called Spit Mechs. I will also be releasing another series for kids that is more 1930s-style pulp. And before you ask, yes, there is a zeppelin.

When I made the decision to self-publish, I wanted to get it right. I hope you’ll enjoy the quality of these books from Amazon, from the writing (of course) to the layout and cover illustrations.

Three Things I Learned at the DFW Writers Conference

This past weekend I attended the DFW Writers Conference in Dallas, Texas. I’ve been writing and submitting for a long while, but I’ve never been to a full-fledged writing conference. One of my high school friends and a successful author told me writing conferences were the place for aspiring authors to be. So I took her advice, and here are three things I took away from the experience.

Writers Are the Best

I met a lot of fellow authors at the conference, and as always, it was wonderful to talk to folks of my own ilk and compare notes on the craft and life of writing. I could do that all day. But it also got me to thinking about why I like writer folk so much. Because by the very nature of crafting story and character, writers are more empathetic people (generalizing here obviously). We have to get into the heads of our characters and understand motivation, and so we tend to do that with other people too. While many writers are introverts who can appreciate solitude, we’re an understanding lot. And many of us even downright tolerant. I didn’t talk to a single author who was standoffish this weekend, and I met a lot interesting writers I hope to talk to again. And again.

Query Letters Need to Be Phenomenal

I knew this already. But I got to watch this event called the Query Letter Gong Show. Anonymous query letters from real authors at the conference were read on stage. Seven agents listened and would strike a gong when they heard something that would stop them reading the query in ordinary circumstances. Three gongs stopped the reading. Of probably fifty letters, two made it all the way through without three gongs. And between the two of those, only one piqued the interest of a few agents. They said that the average agent receives about 10,000 or more queries a year. All agents are different, but they look for a variety of clues to stop reading. I’ve read the query blogs and tips of how to write good query letters, but I was surprised by how quickly agents could be turned off. Some warning signs were obvious ones that I already avoid, but others were less so. Length was a key turn-off. If an author spent too many sentences describing plot that was a turn-off, for example. They loved short queries. They loved great voice too (which should be obvious but something to consider).

Craft & Process

I attended several lectures on the craft of writing and the process of writing. To be honest, I didn’t learn much from these. But it was nice to be reminded of basic craft. And I did take away several golden nuggets that I can’t wait to apply. Agent Alice Speilburg, for example, gave a great talk on holding the proper tension during the rising action of a novel (that period when most readers drop off). And photographer and author Me Ra Koh shared some smart social media insights. I loved listening to Kevin J Anderson talk about World Building and Productivity, even if much of it was aimed at more novice writers.

It was a great experience, and I’m certainly looking forward to my next writing conference.

The One-Dimensional Art Tool

I was thinking how fascinated I was by the two-dimensional interfaces we use to create representations of three-dimensional objects. Which led me to wonder if you could use a one-dimensional interface to create a representation of a two-dimensional object.

My first reaction to that question was in the negative, but the more I thought about I realized that was wrong. Let’s think about our 2D interface, it could be as simple as a sketch on paper or a 3D software program like Maya. When we’re creating our 3D object, we can never see the opposite side. We have to rotate it around if we want to plot points for that side of the object. Well, the same thing holds for our 1D interface. Granted, we’ll be viewing our 2D objects along the side, but we can rotate them around in our single dimension to each side, and plot our points as we arrive at the pertinent side.

I’ve never heard of a 1D tool used to create 2D objects, but then I realized why. While we can see 2D objects, we don’t live in a 2D world. If you did – imagine yourself as a single point on a 2D plane – you would never visualize a square as we do in the 3D world, because that’s a 3D interpretation of a 2D object. From a 2D perspective, you would see only lines and points surrounding you. So, for a 2D creature, a 1D tool would be quite useful.

Before I Write the Novel: 16 Ways I Prepare


As I began working on my current steampunk novel, I took notice of how much work I do in preparation before actually writing any prose. I find it makes the writing go much more smoothly. Primarily, I have fewer issues to mentally juggle in each scene as I’ve already done much of that thinking in the prep work. I can concentrate more on the emotion, the language and the details.

Although I believe every writer has a different process, I thought mine might provide some value to beginning writesr. So without further ado, here’s my list of preparation materials for my current novel:

  1. Plot Post-Its: After a great deal of discovery writing, I try to first nail the plot down by writing plot points on post-its and arranging them on a blank wall or door.
  2. Plot Outline: Using the post-its as a guide, I create the master outline. I spend a great deal of time injecting this outline with all the nuances of needed story (foreshadowing, exposition, inner conflicts, etc.)
  3. Plot High Points: I also find it useful to condense the outline down into a much shorter set of plot high points.
  4. Plot Chart: I create a spreadsheet from the plot high points and created columns for each major character so I can visualize how they were woven in and out of the plot.
  5. Character Bios: I explore primary characters, as far as their past, strengths, weaknesses and appearance.
  6. Research: For this novel, this consisted primarily of research into mechanical machines, various apparatus and specific scientific issues. I keep a Word document with all of these relevant particulars.
  7. Names: Names are critical to developing characters and places. I try to generate every relevant name in the story (knowing there will be more). I also try to group names by (fictitious) cultural influences.
  8. Themes: Here I explore the themes of the novel. This is used to modify the plot outline where necessary.
  9. Elements of Suspense: In this document, I analyze the plot for opportunities for suspense. I then modify the plot outline accordingly.
  10. Ideas Catalog: Like a small encyclopedia, I detail elements and concepts in the world I have created.
  11. Powers Ideas: In this novel, I created a new kind of magic and so felt I required documentation specifically around that.
  12. Diagram of Powers:  I also felt I needed a visual representation of how magic is used, so I made a rough sketch.
  13. Map of City: Naturally, I drew a map of the primary city.
  14. Map of World: I created another map of the world.
  15. Images (Environments):* I create image folders for various scenes and backdrops. These folders are filled with images I searched for on Google image search.
  16. Dream Cast:* I identify the celebrities I think might best represent my main characters, and save the most relevant images of them in a file folder. These celebrities do not have to be actors.

*Both the ideas for the image file folders and the dream cast were suggested to me by other successful writers.

How Not to Handle Returning from a Writing Hiatus

Writing After a HiatusUpon the times that I’ve returned to writing from a longer hiatus, I’ve exhibited the following, possibly unhealthy, pattern.

  1. Get story spark from divine events.* Hastily jot down notes on character and plot. Start writing.
  2. After two to four weeks, encounter the inevitable snarl. The writing is bogged down, going nowhere fast. Spend a session or two alternating between unsnarling, writing new scenes, destroying old ones, and beating head on desk.
  3. Step back and realize I failed while crafting original story outline, failed to think through motivations , sub-plots and things of this rudimentary ilk.
  4. Get disgusted with story. Start a new story, learning from my mistakes.
  5. Get it right. Pen masterpiece?

As experienced writers understand, momentum plays an enormous role in bringing about good writing. It keeps you on the edge of your game, thinking through all the elements of story a good writer needs to be thinking about. Remembering what you did in the last book, or last week, comparing it to what you just read, and so on. You’re in the zone of your craft, as it were.

If I take a break, then several of those perceptions and skills, some of the subtle, tend to shake loose and become misplaced. If I take a break, I need a practice round, something expendable. Or at least it becomes expendable in the process. I’ve never planned this, but looking back, I’ve recreated this pattern several times. You would think I would see it coming. No matter, it’s still something I have to do. The price I pay for taking a break. I should know better.

*And by divine, I mean mundane.

Writing Rituals and Other Forms of Wizardry

Writers have their rituals, don’t they? They have to have their cup of tea, or their blue Bic, or their yellow notepad, or their time of day, or they must be facing West.

I have fewer rituals than I once did. Now that I’m a parent, they’ve dwindled to simple ones like don’t-talk-to-me and can-we-not-scream-right-now. I also prefer to have a window or a big space in front of me (because I read something about it in a feng shui book once and it’s worked for me since).

I believe the writer’s rituals are important though, for two basic reasons.

First, we’re creating the circumstances for success by enforcing a kind of discipline, albeit one that is hiding behind superstition. Because ritual puts us into a routine, which in turn triggers our mind to say, “Okay, we’re in writer mode now, so the rest of you distracting thoughts clear out.” Like any habit, the more we do it, the better we get at it.

But second, this ritual is a kind of magic. Writing is an activity unlike virtually any other. To function in society, we have to wire our brains to speak to us in certain ways. There are certain logic connections we have to make, so that when we interact with others, everybody is on the same page. For example, if you tell me you’re ready to get out of here, I can infer you mean out of our immediate vicinity. I’m making a logical deduction based on context and past experience that you don’t mean the country or the planet. But, in writing, that kind of logic often hinders us whether we realize it or not. Our minds make enormous leaps between unlike objects to create things that are new and fresh and interesting. To harness that power we need a bit of magic. We need to believe in a little super power to craft strange new worlds. And if ritual can bring the lightning down, then by all means, wear the fuzzy Snoopy slippers that you keep tucked in a wooden box in the closet for just such an earth-rattling occasion.